Green businesses are sprouting at The Plant

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Plant Chicago’s closed-loop algae system at The Plant // Photo courtesy of Plant Chicago, NFP

Beer is the key to everything, says Carolee Kokola of Bubbly Dynamics, landlords of Chicago’s The Plant.

The Plant is a former meatpacking plant that’s been repurposed as into a food-production facility. The goal is to have a building with zero waste and a self-generated power supply—no small feat for a large industrial building. While open to businesses of all types, in order to really function The Plant needed an anchor tenant with ample agricultural waste. A tenant like a brewery, which produces hundreds of pounds of spent grain every brew day.

Bubbly Dynamics owner John Edel has experience transforming traditional buildings into eco-conscious entities. Before The Plant, his company converted the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, a smaller building of light industrial businesses, into an operation with a similar emphasis on reuse. He started The Plant in 2010 with a farming/growing focus. Since then, it has evolved to have more of a food-production slant.

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The Plant // Photo by Carolee Kokola

In order for The Plant to be self-sufficient and produce no waste, Edel knew he’d need an anaerobic digester—essentially a giant composter that would burn bio-waste while creating byproducts like methane that could be used by the building’s other tenants in the forms of electricity and heating or cooling. Not only that, both liquid and solid waste from the digester could be turned into fertilizer for growing food-bearing plants.

The structure for The Plant is slowly beginning to take shape. Sixteen eco-minded businesses currently occupy the building, with a soon-to-open taproom up next. Whiner Beer Company, the building’s largest tenant and The Plant’s anchor tenant, is hoping to lend a sense of destination to the industrial complex, drawing attention to the other businesses, which include Pleasant House Bakery, 4 Letter Word Coffee, Fruiting Mushrooms, Great American Cheese Collection, and Arize Kombucha.

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Whiner’s boil kettles // Photo by Ria Neri

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Mushrooms grow at The Plant // Photo courtesy Plant Chicago, NFP

All these businesses rely on Whiner in one way or another, directly or indirectly. For Pleasant House, it’s using spent grain in breads. Fruiting Mushrooms uses the grains as fertilizer (similar to what’s done at Minneapolis’ Mississippi Mushrooms), along with spent beans from 4 Letter Word, which roasts its beans in-house and gives its nutrient-rich waste away to growers in the building.

“Basically every process has sustainability attached to it,” summarizes Brian Taylor, brewmaster and managing partner at Whiner Beer. The brewery’s CO2 emissions, for example, are captured in pipes and used to feed algae, which in turn feeds aquaponics and hydroponics farms that raise fish and plants. Waste is reduced and businesses save on commodities costs. “We call it a small business incubator,” Taylor says.

Next page: Extending The Plant’s mission beyond its walls

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